This is the fifth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
Jesus was urgent in warning us to be ready for judgment. He did this in many ways, but most notably in the parables. In this post let’s ponder His teachings and hear His urgency.
Most casual readers of the Bible tend to view the parables as merely interesting, entertaining stories. While that is so, they are deadly serious as well; they powerfully portray the drama of human life, the need to make decisions, and the consequences of those decisions. The parables carry weighty messages and substantial warnings. Do not misconstrue their creative, pithy, memorable qualities as signs of superficial teaching.
Some of Jesus’ starkest warnings come in the form of parables. In them, the drama of human life in the valley of decision (Joel 3:14) is vividly proclaimed. Indeed, the parables are mostly about the drama and decisions of human life and the stance we take in the cosmic battle that rages around us. Our decisions point to our destiny. Of Jesus’ 37 parables, 20 are ones that remind us that our decisions can bring blessing or curse, rise or ruin, salvation or condemnation. Let’s review some of them, in order of increasing intensity:
- The rich fool (Luke 12:16–21): This is a parable of a rich man who hoards the surplus yielded by a bountiful harvest rather than being generous with it. God calls him a fool and claims his life that very night. In this parable Jesus warns us of the foolishness of living for passing, worldly things, cautioning that total loss is coming for those who are not rich in what matters to God.
- The wise and the foolish builders (Matthew 7:24–7; Luke 6:46–49): This is the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount; in it the Lord describes the dramatic difference between those who follow His teachings and those who do not. Those who heed His Word are like those who build their houses on solid rock and are thus able to endure the storms that come. But the foolish, who do not heed His Word, are like those who build their houses on sand. For them, the result is total loss and destruction when the storm of judgment comes.
- The sower (Matthew 13:3–9; Mark 4:3–9; Luke 8:5–8): Though God sows the seed of His Word abundantly, some of it falls on the path, where it is consumed by birds. Other seed falls among thorns, which choke it off. Still other seed falls on rocky soil and withers due to the lack of roots. This is a dramatic warning to those who harden their hearts to God’s Word or who allow the soil of their heart to be thinned or choked off by the world. The warning is this: you will not bear the necessary fruit. Some seed, however, does fall on rich soil and it yields an abundant harvest. There is a dramatic difference in the results and it is rooted in the disposition of our hearts.
- The wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24–30): God’s field of wheat is threatened by the weeds of Satan. (This is a dramatic description of the two armies in this world.) Angry field hands propose pulling up the weeds, but the owner cautions that doing so might harm the wheat. He instructs them to allow the wheat and weeds to grow together until the harvest. There is a harvest, at which time the wheat will be gathered in but the weeds will be thrown into the fire. So there is a day of judgment, though not yet. Although the drama must still unfold, the final verdict will ultimately be rendered.
- The barren fig tree (Luke 13:6–9): This is a parable about patience. In it, extra time is given to an unfruitful fig tree, but the day of judgment is set. If fruit is not found on the tree on that day, it will be cut down. This is the drama of our life: if we do not manifest the fruit of righteousness we will be removed from the Lord’s field.
- The dragnet (Matthew 13:47 –50): The kingdom of God (the Church) is compared to a dragnet, which captures all sorts of things. The drama unfolds when the net is hauled ashore and there comes the judgment. Only what is good is retained; that which is unclean and worthless is cast aside.
- The counting of the cost (Luke 14:28–33): In this parable, Jesus warns that discipleship is costly; some are not able or willing to finish once started. He uses the images of a building begun without the resources necessary to finish it and of a king going to war knowing that he is greatly outnumbered. Similarly, some will set off to be disciples but later realize that they do not have the resources or willingness to continue. Thus the Lord sets forth in this parable that discipleship is costly and that the warfare is real. The implication is that some are willing to accept the cost while others are not. The road to salvation is narrow and few find it. The narrow way is the way of the cross. Many turn back from it, preferring the wide road that ultimately leads to destruction.
- The unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35): A man who owes a huge debt to the king has it forgiven, but then refuses to forgive the much smaller debt of a fellow servant. The king then calls the man back and applies the same unforgiving standard to him that he used on his confrere. Thus the measure we measure out to others will be measured back to us. Merciless is the judgment on one who has shown no mercy. Further, if we do not forgive the sins of others, neither will we find forgiveness from the Father. The choice to forgive and show mercy is a dramatic and crucial decision for us, one that will affect our final judgment in a powerful way.
- The prodigal son (Luke 15): A sinful son returns to and is reconciled with his father. But in a dramatic twist, the “obedient” son becomes bitter and refuses to enter his father’s house. Even more dramatically, the parable ends without us knowing whether or not the obedient son ever entered. This is because you are that son and you must decide for yourself if you will enter the Father’s house on His terms or stay outside, brooding that God doesn’t do everything on your terms.
- The dishonest steward (Lk 16:1-13): An unscrupulous steward has been discovered embezzling funds. In the end, though, Jesus praises his craftiness even though it is wrong. The point being made is that most sinners are far more dedicated to their world than Christians are to the Kingdom. This parable is another example showing that too many are simply not willing to fight for and with the Kingdom; they are thus lost as much through apathy as through wickedness.
- The rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31): In this parable, a rich man who has been insensitive to the poor ends up in Hell. Through this we are taught that such insensitivity is a damnable sin. In the great drama of his life, the rich man preferred to be wealthy in the world rather than to store up treasure for himself in Heaven. So hardened is his heart that even though he is now in torment in Hell, he does not ask to come to Heaven, but rather that Lazarus be dispatched to Hell to bring him water. In this, the rich man shows that he has not changed; he still looks down on Lazarus and prefers creature comforts to God and His kingdom. The rich man’s heart is hardened and so can ours be if we let sin, neglect, and insensitivity go unchecked.
- The wicked vineyard workers (Mat 21:33-41): The owner of a vineyard sends his representatives to collect his share of the produce, but the wicked workers beat some and kill others. Finally, they kill the owner’s son. Next the owner comes and submits them to a bad end. In the drama of this world, there are many who reject God’s call for a share in their hearts; they beat or even kill those who prophetically call them to give glory to God and to live holy lives. In rejecting His appointed prophets, they also reject Christ and will come to a bad end.
- The great banquet (Matt 22:1-14; Lk 14:15-24): A king holds a wedding feast for his son, but the invited guests are too involved in worldly affairs to bother coming, even to so great an event. The king grows angry and burns their town. He then goes off to invite others until the banquet is filled. There is one man in attendance who refuses to wear the provided wedding attire. For this, he is thrown into the outer darkness. Through this parable we are taught that while many are called, few are chosen. Our decision to accept or reject God’s invitation is critical. Either we accept it and enter the feast or else face a fiery end. Even those of us who accept must wear the robe of righteousness that God provides us or else risk being cast into the outer darkness. Our decisions are dramatic and they determine our destiny.
- The wise and the foolish virgins (Mat 25:1-13): Ten bridesmaids await the groom’s arrival. Five were wise and carried extra oil; five were foolish and thus unprepared when the groom arrived. The wedding went on without the foolish bridesmaids and when they finally returned, the groom said to them, “Depart from me; I know you not.” This parable depicts the drama of our lives. We must live in readiness. The oil of our holiness must always be replenished and be kept ready through prayer, the sacraments, Scripture, and fellowship with the Church (Acts 2:42). Judgment day is coming. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.
- The sheep and the goats (Mat 25:31-46): In a scene of the great judgment, the Lord welcomes the righteous sheep on his right to the glory of Heaven, but consigns the wicked goats on His left to the fires of Hell. While the passage emphasizes the corporal works of mercy and indicates that to neglect them is a damnable sin, the passage should not be taken to mean these will be the only matters adjudicated. Again, note how dramatic are the decisions in our life, including how we choose to care for the poor and needy.
The Lord repeatedly sets before us the great drama of human life and the importance of our decisions. Our choices matter and they build to a fundamental, final destiny. Thoughts beget deeds, deeds beget habits, habits beget character, and character begets destiny. This is the drama and dignity of our life.
Though consistently preached by Jesus in the parables and in countless other texts, this theme is rarely mentioned in preaching today. We preachers must change this if we are to announce the Gospel authentically. For those who hear and heed the message, blessings await. For those who stubbornly refuse or who sinfully neglect the message, doom awaits. This is the drama of every human life.
Here are two final passages; The first contains a warning, the second a blessing.
Jesus said, “Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch” (Mk 13:33-37).
Therefore, you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect. Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing (Mat 24:44-47).
In the next post in this series, on Monday of next week, we will ponder some ways to be ready.